Views from the Field No. 9 | Keeping your survey on track when the internet lets you down
With the launch of the highly anticipated surveybe release 6 later this year, I’ve been reflecting on the merits of both online and offline data collection modes. With world moving ever closer to attaining global internet connectivity, it is very easy to think that online is the best and only way to collect data. Whilst online cloud based survey software undoubtedly offers a multitude of benefits, it should not be forgotten that offline data collection has a number of distinct benefits – particularly in less connected parts of the world. In this blog post, I explore some of the benefits seen by EDI’s teams since we began our transition to electronic data collection in 2006.
At the moment, global internet connectivity is a worthy and valid goal, but the reality remains that access to the internet continues to be very limited or non-existent in rural and remote areas of developing countries. Moreover, even if internet is available in survey areas, internet bandwidth and network coverage is not always complete or reliable, making the management of surveys using online-only electronic data collection software more challenging. Being aware of these risks and having a contingency plan in place is therefore important if you will be fully or even partly dependent on having an internet connection.
The degree to which CAPI software requires internet connectivity varies, for example, some applications provide a web based tool for the design and creation of questionnaires. Others allow the use of a spreadsheet which lets you work offline but require an online connection to generate and deploy the questionnaire in field. Likewise, their ability to debug, validate, and test questionnaires is largely tied to having an internet connection.
Internet connectivity can also be required at key points once in field, for example, when re-allocating interviews from one interviewer to another and when uploading data to the cloud. If a system is too reliant on the internet in a poorly connected area, there is high risk of delays to the fieldwork or extra costs if the team need to travel out of the way to seek out a good connection. In some places the costs of data bundles is also a factor, with the volume, size of interview files, and the number of times they need to be transferred between devices having a bigger impact on budgets.
EDI’s core business is implementing large surveys in countries such as Tanzania and Uganda where there has been a lack of internet connectivity and so we are acutely aware of the challenges that this poses. Therefore, an important consideration for the development of our surveybe software has been that all field procedures are made seamless and progress is enhanced and not hindered by our software. Surveybe was specifically developed to allow, if needed, for our data collection projects to be conducted entirely offline.
Offline has many benefits, not having to worry about internet access means that you can design your questionnaires anywhere; at the office, while you are on the plane, or at the motel in a remote area. You can even make important updates to your questionnaire after observing or getting feedback from interviewers wherever you are in field, avoiding unnecessary delays in starting data collection.
Furthermore, you can use localised methods such as USB flash drives or Bluetooth to transfer:
- Questionnaire files to interviewers;
- Interview files between interviewers if required, to supervisors and to headquarters.
As soon as data collection for one or a batch of interviews is complete, interviewers can transfer the interview file at their convenience so that the supervisor can initiate their checks. The use of these localised methods also removes the need of using a server to store your data. Your data are always safe as surveybe interview files remain encrypted during the transfer process. You can password protect or encrypt files on the USB flash drives or the receiving devices. An added benefit of using localised methods of transfer is affordability; USB flash drives which come with advanced functions like security protection and better transfer speed are available at a relatively cheap price.
When internet is available, surveybe allows users to transfer your interview files on ‘cloud’ storage such as Dropbox, Google drive or to any other server. You can also choose to transfer the interview files via email as the size of a json file is fairly compact. Surveybe’s flexibility allows each project to choose an appropriate method of interview file transfer. Remember what ever file transfer technology and processes you use, they will need piloted before you go to field.
At EDI we recognise the benefits and challenges of both online and offline modes. Surveybe already offers both offline and online functionality and surveybe release 6 will expand our online offering even further. But when internet connectivity is an issue, surveybe provides you with a robust offline data collection solution so that you can ensure that your survey can run smoothly.